Monday, March 21, 2011

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Semester at Sea: A Reflection

When the reality sunk in that I would actually be sailing on Semester at Sea, I made the effort to talk to some SAS alumni. When we first started talking, the reaction was always the same. "It was an amazing experience," they would start. "It absolutely changed my life."

I always get a little frustrated at people who make vague or overly dramatic comments like those in any situation. However, I learned over the past two and a half months that those statements were not overly dramatic. There is a reason everybody describes it the same way-- there's no other way to describe the dozens and dozens of incredible experiences that occur during a voyage.

Neither my words nor my pictures can do any justice to the story that has unfolded this Summer. In this blog, I've used words like "amazing," "incredible," or "beautiful" countless times but they don't really have the effect I'm looking for. I can talk at you for hours but It is impossible to truly convey the impact and influences of this voyage. This is why SASers (including students, faculty, and staff) become so close; we bond through the ups and downs of the journey.

While there were some "downs," they were significantly outnumbered by the "ups." I laughed, I cried, and I grew tremendously. Academically, there is no experience that parallels walking the grounds of a Moroccan Psychiatric Institution with your professor or applying that abstract Global Studies lecture on the fall of the Byzantine Empire by looking out at Istanbul's Golden Horn. Socially, I blew away boundaries of my "comfort zone." It paid off; I made some amazing friends and we shared some incredibly fun times like watching World Cup matches in Spain, dealing with the "experience" of a 9.5 hour sketchy overnight train ride, aimlessly exploring Bosnia, competing in the Sea Olympics, or simply feeling the silent power of others' presence while stargazing or admiring the beauty of a sunset at sea.

SAS prides itself on offering a truly "global perspective." My knowledge of world culture and current events is no longer limited to what I've read. It is now supplemented by the unique understanding that can only result from experiential learning--the study of politics, arts, conflicts, identity, and memory in (note "in" not "of") some of the world's most special places. I feel truly blessed to have had these profound opportunities. Despite the differences of the diverse cultures we were "injected" into, I gained a better understanding of how we are all human with the same basic nature and needs. It sounds like a load of mush, but it's true. I can tell you this because I've been there; I can now say that I have walked the "rough" streets of Barcelona, interacted with troubled kids in an Italian orphanage, observed the physical and emotional damage a war-torn nation, admired the homes and worshipers of the Islamic faith, seen a primitive Nubian village, and walked among the people of the impoverished outskirts of Casablanca.

One of the big lessons this summer was that of open-mindedness and flexibility. We were told countless times during the initial days at sea that flexibility is key on any SAS voyage. This was certainly the case; not everything went as planned and last minute changes changes requiring a little improvisation were common. This mostly applied to trips in port but played a big role in the "shipboard community" as well. Due dates for assignments were flexible, sea-sickness was an excuse to miss class, we had to conserve water, and peanut butter had to be rationed (oh no!). It was a great lesson when things didn't go as planned; everybody learned to work together and make the best of the situation because that's all you really can do. This adaptability is a great lesson and tool to take back into "real life."

The end of this voyage marks a return to reality. While I'm physically exhausted from this Summer, I'm more ready than ever to face the challenges of the future. My experiences the past 68 days have only increased my motivation and drive to work with and understand people in deeper ways, express the human condition through music, increase my knowledge of the scientific world, and continue my work as an "aspiring physician." These things I can accomplish at home but my travels are far from over as the infectious travel bug has inspired me to make sharing and learning abroad a priority in the future.

The end of this adventurous voyage is bittersweet. I have bid farewell to close friends and the MV Explorer, but it's time. I'm in California being greeted by my incredibly loving family and friends. It's fun abroad, but there's no place like home. Soon it will be back to school and I must now must face the intense transition and challenges that lie ahead. The voyage of a lifetime: Semester at Sea, Summer 2010.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Day 68: Norfolk & Disembarkation

There's nothing like a 24 hour travel day to conclude an epic journey. The day started at about 5:00am as I met Daniel, Lacey, and Mindy to stake out a spot on deck 6 for the sunrise and entrance into port. We had good intentions with the sunrise thing but unfortunately the muggy skies of Virginia didn't let us see much. The ride though some of the rivers into the port terminal was pretty exciting. Apparently SAS is one of the higher profile ship arrivals that Norfolk gets. Customs actually brought people in and did a decent amount of prep for our arrival. We also had a 3 boat escort into port which was kind of cool. As we got closer, the decks filled with people eager to see family and the sights of our final stop. A lot of my friends had family come out so it was fun to see the excitement on both sides as family eventually had visuals on students and vice versa (I still think I got a better deal by meeting my parents in Egypt...). We pulled alongside and sounded the horn as the excitement died down and we got to start the fun customs clearance waiting game.

We were released from the ship in groups by our sea/color and around noon I officially disembarked the MV Explorer. We went into a large storeroom where our bags (loaded the day before) were available for pickup. I had my main large duffle and a smaller black duffle filled with a few clothes and all my souvenirs. I found the large bag easily but wasn't so lucky with the smaller one. After an hour of combing every corner of the warehouse, it was officially declared missing. SInce it was a very generic looking bag, the most likely scenario was that somebody mistakenly took it. The ISE reps said this is fairly common; I got the name and number of a likely suspect because a similar looking bag was left behind. It was a little frustrating and made the day a bit more hectic than it needed to be (I was hoping to distribute weight between both but since the larger one was overweight for flying I had to layer on some clothes and toss the mouthwash at the airport). I got a message from my dad during my 30 second "layover" in Dallas that somebody had called having picked up the bag by mistake and would UPS it tomorrow. That's a nice thing to know.

Following the bag incident, I got the chance to meet the parents of Lacey, Mindy, and Kyle. Along with Daniel, we all decided to do a group lunch at the CPK within walking distance. We checked bags into a nearby hotel and had a really nice lunch. It was really cool meeting the families, they're friendly and great people. The time for goodbyes came as I had to cut out a little early to get to the airport. It's sad to say goodbye but I'm confident that the relationships established are strong and will remain so into the future. I got my bags and snagged a taxi. It was nice having a driver that spoke fluent English and even though the guy was a bit insane we had a great conversation en route. As I mentioned before, everybody in Norfolk knows about SAS because 800 traveling college kids invade the city twice a year. My flight to Dallas was about 90% SAS people (the TSA hates us) and was a pretty dreadfully boring 3 hours (although there were some great views from above the thunderstorms). The flight ran a bit late so a few of us made a fun little mad dash board the connecting flight. Dallas to LAX was rather slow as well, at least I got to enjoy a lovely dinner of diet coke, almonds, crackers, cheese, and a box of raisins. We finally arrived about 11:00pm (felt like 2:00am...) and it was great to see my parents excited and waiting.

Bittersweet is a great word to describe the past few days. Saying goodbyes and walking down the gangway for the last time was tougher than I thought it would be. The journey from fantasy to reality was aided upon arrival home by the waiting coleslaw and applesauce. Sleeping in my own bed (and one that wasn't moving with the roll of a ship) offered a great rest. I'm now among my family, friends and the familiar California landscape. I'm home, and it feels great.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Day 67: Convocation

67 days ago as we first boarded the ship, I never imagined how fast the time would fly.  I simply can't believe that tomorrow morning I will be back in the US.  People will speak English, the floor won't move, I'll have a cell phone again, and I'll be forced to settle back into reality.  Virginia is only a few hours away.


Today was the infamous cargo loading day.  We had to be packed by 10:00am and each of the seas was called over the PA to take luggage to a designated location where it would be transfered to the cargo hold.  Even though only about a hundred people were called at a time, it was complete mayhem in the halls.  They're narrow as it is; take 100 people with luggage the size of a small vehicle and it's rather crowded.  After the luggage fiasco, the shipboard community convened for the closing Convocation.  There were a lot of speeches, most with the same general themes of reflection on the dozens of incredible experiences this Summer, and quite a bit of faculty/staff/admin team recognition.  The ceremony closed with a really awesome video by our voyage videographer.  He did an great job and I was able to snag a copy, so I'll let you borrow if there's any interest.


After picking up our passports, we had our final logistical pre-port.  There was some good information about customs and whatnot but the majority of the meeting was a parody of our typical past pre-ports (culture and crime/saftey concerns, etc).  At every pre-port it was always heavily stressed that we must go to any means to guard, protect and not lose our passport.  The quote of the evening came from the Executive Dean who matter-of-factly stated that after we get though customs, the admin team "doesn't really give a s**t" about what we do with our passports.  Overall, it was a really funny event and also served as a good way to bid farewell to the staff that makes this all happen.  After pre-port we went out to admire the stars and moonlit ocean one last time before grabbing our final late-night snack and calling it an evening.  The goal for tomorrow is to get a very early start (hopefully after at least a few hours of sleep) and see the sunrise before our entrance into Norfolk.


While I'm really going to miss the environment and community here, it's time to head home.  I can't wait to see my parents, sisters, nephews, and friends.  It's been such a long yet quick 2.5 months.  That's all for now; USA, here we come.

Day 66: Re-entry & Reflections

I awoke this morning to the interesting sound of water seeping and dripping from the ceiling of our cabin onto the floor. Leaks on board are pretty common; there's a lot of flood damage around and they always tell you to not store electronics on the ground. Even though there was some splashage onto the desk, nothing was damaged. I called it in and the plumbers took care of the leak.

Other than the excitement of a leaking ship, today has been pretty uneventful. I've had lots of time to work on organizing pictures and made the final trip to the gym this morning (good riddance...I can't wait to run on actual land that doesn't move) . We have to be packed by tomorrow morning so I've made some good progress and it's actually been a lot easier than I thought it would be. There were a number of sessions regarding "re-entry and reflection" throughout the day. I went to one entitled "Caught the travel bug?" and it had some good info and tips on future travel and how to do it cheaply, for free, or get paid (basically, the answer was to stay in school or go into academia). I'll state the obvious: I'm hooked now. The travel bug is a full blown infection. Anyone want to go to Vietnam with me next Summer?

I need to make good on my promise to offer some specs and info about our ship, the famous (or infamous?) MV Explorer. Enjoy.

Built in 2002 by the well respected Blohm & Voss shipbuilders of Germany
Described by Maritime Telecommunications Network "as one of the safest ships afloat"
U.S. and international health and safety ratings in the 99th percentile
One of the fastest passenger ships of its kind in the world (haha...right, too bad we run at less than quarter speed to make time for classes)

Tonnage: 25,000 tons
Length: 590 ft. (180 m)
Beam: 84 ft. (26 m)
Draft: 24 ft. (7 m)
Outside Deck Space: 30,000 sq. ft. (2.800 m^2)
Passenger Decks: 6
Pool Area: 7,500 sq. ft. (700 m^2)
Swimming Pool: 1
The Union: 380 seats
Dining Hall Deck 5: 470 seats
Dining Hall Deck 6: 210 seats
Outside Dining (Deck 6): 110 seats
Faculty and Staff Lounge: 138 seats
Classrooms: 9
Piano Bar: 104 seats
Passenger Capacity (double basis): 836

That's all for now, I have to go figure out the US Customs paperwork.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Day 65: Finals & The Alumni Ball

The morning started early with a final in Infectious Disease.  Since there's essentially no time for profs to grade, the test was nearly all multiple choice and wasn't too bad.  The Abnormal Psych exam also went well.  A little before noon, I was officially done with the summer semester.  After lunch I began the process of packing.  I didn't accumulate a lot of "stuff" compared to most people but it's still a daunting task to fit everything that I originally took (when I had the time/space to figure out how to squeeze every free inch) and some of the new acquisitions.  I made some decent progress so hopefully I can just look at the rest and it will pack itself.

The Alumni Ball was the big activity for the evening.  At the conclusion of every SAS voyage, the ball is a formal program, dinner, and dance to celebrate the conclusion of the voyage and our declaration as SAS alumni.  It was fun to walk around about an hour before the program/dinner started because there were only guys out and about (a rare sight when the ship is over 75% female) because all the girls were going through the normal pre-event freak-out routine downstairs.  The program was comprised of a long slideshow, entertainment and a very strange roommate version of the newly-weds game.  Since everybody was all fancied-up we took pictures with the captain and made our way to dinner.  It was actually like a real cruise for once; the food and service was really quite impressive (not to say the crew doesn't normally a nice job).  Dessert was a huge and well stocked buffet which provided a great way to conclude the "psh...this is sort of like vacation, I can eat horribly" mentality that most have used throughout the voyage.  After desert, the dance was held up on the pool deck.  Those of you who know me well would be very impressed; I lasted quite a while and actually attempted involvement.  Overall, I have to admit that the evening was kind of fun.

We gained another hour last night putting us on Eastern Standard Time.  Yet another reminder that we're getting closer.  Thursday is designated as a day for re-entry prep and reflection with a few sessions that focus on the whole reflection bit.  That's all for now, I should probably get back to thinking about packing.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Day 64: Study Day

I had originally planned to postpone this post until tomorrow morning but the current situation of a rocking ship, loud creaking stabilizer outside, and a snoring roommate led me to reconsider. Today was a productive and relaxing study day. There was nothing overly exciting; I mainly used the time to brush up on info for tomorrow's Infectious Disease exam and the final Abnormal Psych test. There was also a trip to the gym and a nice nap. I spent a decent chunk of the day helping out some others with some research for final papers that are due tomorrow. Looking up political and economic stuff can be kind of fun (yes I know I'm weird) and makes for a good study break.

There was yet another beautiful sunset this evening. While we're 0 for 3 on seeing the green flash, it's still a very cool view. Since it was a lot less windy today, there were quite a few students and faculty out to enjoy the sunset which made for some good final photo-ops. I've begun the process of picture exchange with some people. It's a bit more difficult than it sounds due to the vast amount of pictures people have and the general lack of storage mediums to transfer them with. My computer now has over 30GB of pictures on it from this trip (most not mine) and tomorrow after finals I'll start the wonderful task of sorting through them all.

I'm looking forward to getting the two tests out of the way tomorrow. It will be a relief to be done with the classes but also a little hectic as the process of packing starts. Tomorrow evening is also the Ambassador's Ball, the formal dinner and dance. It's not my first choice on the list of things to do, but I'll attempt to keep a positive outlook. That's all for now, I'm going to reattempt the whole sleeping thing.